Helen Levitt is in a class of her own and the singularity of her photography is probably inseparable from the distinctive contour of her life and character. She photographed little else than the city of New York, where she was born in 1913 and lived until her death in 2009, and like Samuel Beckett steadfastly resisted attempts to have her explain her work. On first acquaintance, her pictures from the late 1930s and ‘40s seem transparently easy to read: street photography of the working-class, especially children, framed by pavements and tenement houses in impoverished, immigrant neighbourhoods. Adjectives like ‘warm’ and ‘lyrical’ have been used and a gendered romanticism attributed to pigeonhole their pictorial quality and diminish their complexity. What can be forgotten is that Levitt’s art was forged in a cauldron of left politics, modernism and surrealism. In a 2002 interview, she looked back to a time when decision-making was decided for her: ‘I should take pictures of working-class people and contribute to the movements…Socialism, Communism, whatever was happening’. Levitt mixed with members of the left-wing Film & Photo League,...
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